Journal

LIFE ON THEME

I've read a fair bit of cynicism, recently, espousing the contrived nature of "new-ness" at the New Year. The majority of these critics take issue with some perceived falsehood present in the practice of making resolutions. The most well intentioned of them employ a line of logic that typically goes like this:

Everyday you have an opportunity start fresh. Don't let the arbitrariness of a calendar define your story.

But, I take issue with this line of thinking.

Life is Story

 
Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time.
— Robert McKee
 
Don't let cynicism keep you from the change you desire. (photo by Trey Hill)

Don't let cynicism keep you from the change you desire. (photo by Trey Hill)

Much has been written by more accomplished men & women than me about the subject of life as story. I believe this line of thinking to have great value & will proceed from this point assuming you agree. We are living lives that (we hope) will be worthy tales, inspiring adventure and noblity and come to a happy end. The best of them will echo in eternity, to quote Gladiator's Maximus. 

Stories have a few key ingredients — character, conflict & theme among them. So if stories have these things & we are living stories, then life should have these things as well. 

You are the character in your story, therefore you must want something & will have to overcome much in pursuit of that desire. It's this desire that compels us at each new year to resolve in our hearts to be, do or change something. 

Where we are is not where we wish to remain.

A Caution Against Cliché

 
A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change.
— Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
 

I think the cynicism against New Years resolutions comes from how quickly we abandon them. If Marty McFly gives up on getting home & fades into oblivion in 1955, we have no story. If Frodo says "to hell with it" and chucks the ring, we have no story. If I resolve to quit smoking and can't make it to the end of January without opening a new pack, I cut the legs out from under the narrative I want to live. 

When you resolve to lose weight or write more or quit smoking, you are making two mistakes. First, you're telling (yourself) a boring story. Second, you're telling that boring story in a completely unoriginal way. 

Find your unique vantage point on life; p erspective is everything. (photo by Trey Hill)

Find your unique vantage point on life; perspective is everything. (photo by Trey Hill)

Don't be cliché. Abandoning resolutions is cliché & stories rooted in cliché are well deserving of every eyeroll they receive.  

Honestly, you are wonderfully unique. You see and experience the world unlike anyone else. Why would you waste time & energy on some homogenized version of a story that you can't stay interested in living for more than a couple of weeks?

The answer, I believe, lies at the root of the desired thing. Going back to my smoking analogy, why do I want to quit? Health reasons? Social? Financial? Spiritual? The why behind a particular resolution is the key.

Start With Theme

 
When we want mood experiences, we go to concerts or museums. When we want meaningful emotional experience, we go to the storyteller.
— Robert McKee
 
If stories are trains, theme is the track. (photo by Trey Hill)

If stories are trains, theme is the track. (photo by Trey Hill)

As I said, a story is simply a character who wants something & overcomes conflict to get it. The sum of the waves of conflict one must endure during the course of a story, in the end, means something; this something we call theme. It's the emotionally satisfying nougat core in the candy bar of a well told story. 

To say it another way, theme is the guiding idea that strings together all the choices — success & failure — a character makes and gives them singular, overarching purpose. 

For three years now, when the story title changes — that epic story of endurance called Two Thousand Fourteen ends with fireworks & a kiss; a new story, titled Twenty Fifteen, opens on a cold, quiet morning — I change the theme instead of making a resolution.

marquee.jpg

2013 was The Year of Collaboration.

2014 was The Year of Patience.

And 2015 will be The Year of Creation.  

By starting with a theme, I'm able to determine the trajectory of my year's story. The personal & professional choices I am faced with are weighed against their value to the idea of the story I want to live in a given year. A new year is the perfect occasion for such a reset because it offers a timeline (did you read the McKee quote?), beginning and end, complete with a new title. 

So many incredible things have come about because of living on theme. In 2013, I was able to pull together a collaboration between myself, my friends at Ditore Mayo Entertainment, I Am Second & KoRn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch; the resulting feature length documentary should release later this year. 2014 was an incredibly difficult year, but I believe I was ultimately able to weather her storms because I had built the story of the year on a foundation of patience. 

And now, I can't wait for this time next year when I will be able to see tangible things I made with my hands & mind. More than anything, I'm excited because it gives my free time new purpose.  

Conflict Will Come

 
The world has come undone
Like to change it everyday
Change don’t come at once
It’s a wave building before it breaks.
— Pearl Jam, Undone
 
Like the ocean, a new year serves up wave after wave, set after set of possibility. (photo by Trey Hill)

Like the ocean, a new year serves up wave after wave, set after set of possibility. (photo by Trey Hill)

Living life in the context of a story doesn't mean trouble goes away. If anything, bending your conscious mind toward the story you are intentionally living brings a hyper-awareness to the conflicts that stand in your way. And their significance to the story is rarely lost.

I didn't realize just how much patience my Year of Patience would require when I decided to make that the theme one year ago. In fact, I think I failed more than I succeeded in the story of 2014. I lost my patience many, many times. And the stakes seemed to keep raising on me, demanding more patience than I was able to muster. But, for all the failures of 2014, I am better for having suffered her story. 

As Coldplay so eloquently sings, "just because I'm losing doesn't mean I'm lost." You can't fail at thematic living because even failure leads to change.

If you reach deeper than a declaration of changing behavior & instead choose to let a singular idea shape your year, you will find that the behavior changes come along with a holistic growth that you didn't anticipate. 

Ask yourself what you want & then explore themes that will put you on the path to that goal. Do you want to lose weight? Choose to make 2015 The Year of Fit Living, which will impact not just the frequency with which you exercise but how often you take stairs over elevators, bike instead of drive, the food you eat, the people you invite into your life & a host of things that are completely unique to you.

There is nothing more revolutionary for a story than the author writing the first line. Make a new years revolution by picking an idea you want at the center of your story this year. After all, you have to make this trip around the sun so you might as well be in control of what it means.

RELATED CONTENT


IMTX 2014

For months, I've watched my brother-in-law, Jason, transform into an ironman... but that journey is not complete. Despite the thousands of miles logged in pursuit of it, the title has to be earned.

This morning, he & 2,800 other athletes — humans of a very, very rare breed — shook loose their muscles and zipped up their wet suits as their training came to an end.

The only thing left between them & the title of ironman is 140.6 miles.

I have an immense amount of respect for everyone who can endure what it takes to make it to the start of such a race.

The swimmers enter the water for Ironman Texas. May, 17, 2014.

The swimmers enter the water for Ironman Texas. May, 17, 2014.

I plan to release this as a complete photo story later this week. Stay tuned.

Weekend Links // May 16

I need to lead off this weeks edition of Weekend Links with a massive thank you to everyone who has visited, texted, called, emailed, purchased a print, shared and in all other ways supported the launch of the new website.

The response has, literally, been overwhelming.

So, here we go. A few things that may have eluded you this week that are none-the-less worthy of your time.

1. Love Letter: Dallas

I came across this charming series on The Huffington Post called Love Letters. And, was pleasantly surprised there was a love letter to Dallas, the city I've called home for almost 20 years.

If you're in Dallas, or know someone who is, I think they'll find this short read to be pretty spot on. 

 
I can’t deny that when I see the Green Building, something inside me stirs and I know I’m home...
— Hayden Bernstein
 
The Green Thumb, as my wife calls it, photographed for the Dallas Stars to help launch their re-brand.

The Green Thumb, as my wife calls it, photographed for the Dallas Stars to help launch their re-brand.

2. Yousuf Karsh

 
How I wish that mankind would take the sunrise for their slogan and leave the shadows of sunset behind them.
— Helen Keller
 

I started a new series on the great portrait photographers & led the series off with Yousuf Karsh, an Armenian genocide survivor who was one of histories greatest portraitists. The man's work is phenomenal... but, possibly more phenomenal is how his website pairs the work with small snippets of story and insight from Yousuf about the work and the people he photographed.

George Bernard Shaw, 1943. Photo by Yousuf Karsh.

George Bernard Shaw, 1943. Photo by Yousuf Karsh.

3. Zack Snyder's Batman

Sometimes (and lately these moments have been rare) social media rises above the gossip & trolling to democratically provide something awesome.

This first photo of Zack Snyder's Batman was, in my opinion, one of those things. Here's the tweet the Batman vs Superman director used to light the internet on fire.

 
 

4. Brotherhood

I originally shared about Dylan & Wheeler's documentary 'Brotherhood' several weeks ago when they first launched their Kickstarter campaign. Well, they met their goal & this story is going to happen & I couldn't be happier for these two passionate storytellers.

 
These are the kinds of stories that all of your support has made it possible for us to tell. This piece more resembles our eventual film than anything else we’ve shared to date.
— Dylan Hollingsworth, on getting funded
 

When I first learned about this project I wrote:

"On the surface, supporting this story may trouble you, which is exactly why you should support it. Help create a world where people with differing ideologies listen to one another, where slander is replaced with dialogue and the politicization of issues gives way to an exchange of stories.

If we want others to listen to our story, we should first start by listening to theirs."

Now that the film is fully funded, the cost to invest in this film is merely an open ear. Please take a moment to listen:

5. Bring Back Our Girls

From Lens, the New York Times Photo Blog:

"A Twitter campaign using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has focused global attention on the plight of some 276 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. Three photos of girls have been posted and reposted thousands of times, including by the BBC and by the singer Chris Brown (who himself has had issues with anger management and violence against women).

One problem: The photos are of girls from Guinea-Bissau, more than 1,000 miles from Nigeria, who have no relationship to the kidnappings.

The use of these pictures raises troubling questions of representation, and misrepresentation. Ami Vitale, the photographer who made the original images as part of a long-term project, spoke with James Estrin on Thursday. Their conversation has been edited."

If you work in the world of advocacy, photography or happen to find yourself at the intersection of those two roads, please read that conversation on Lens, here.

6. Air Review's 'Young' Is A Vimeo Staff Pick

And that's just freaking-A awesome.

For those that don't know, Jeff, Doug & Richard — three of Air Review's four members — have worked closely with me on music & voice over for the films I've made.

I'm rather partial to the music Jeff & Doug created for Shutterfly & East West, not to mention the VO work Richard did for me for Active.com.

While I had absolutely nothing to do with this video, I'm definitely it's biggest cheerleader. Please watch & be impressed. Then, if you want, buy the song.

7. Strobist 

David Hobby, aka Strobist, has started a new series called Ecosystem 101. And it is pretty great. 

 
...if you haven’t stopped taking photos long enough to figure out why you do it, I can promise you that you don’t even know what you don’t know.
— David Hobby
 

I'm a big fan of asking the questions David is asking. They're reminiscent of the questions Simon Sinek advocates for companies/brands asking in his TEDx: Start With Why

Why do you do what you do? It's an important question because, as David points out, photography is fungible (hey, there's a fun new word!); "you can make it, you can spend it and you can exchange it. You can create it out of nothing. And the more you think about that, the more possibilities will start to pop into your head."

Have fun chasing possibilities this weekend.

Fifty Dollar Bills

Do you remember that scene in Goonies when Data accidentally bumps the counterfeiting machine in the basement of the Lighthouse Lounge? The machine rumbles to life and sheet after sheet of "fifty dolla bill!" come rolling out. In a fleeting moment before the story even starts, the counterfeiting machine nearly brings an end to their quest for the real treasure that will save their town.

And that's the the thing about the counterfeit - it's so convincing, it promises us reprieve from the hard work ahead. I can't tell you how many times I've chased the counterfeit when real treasure was waiting for me, if only I would join the quest.

WELD life is good life.

WELD life is good life.

About 5 years ago, my buddy Steve & I had an idea for a co-working space in Dallas. I only mention this little detail because what I did with the idea stands in stark contrast to what my friend Austin Mann did with a similar idea. I looked at the cost (financial, personal and professional) and balked, whereas Austin sacrificed everything to bring WELD to life.

And, make no mistake, Austin has sacrificed everything he once treasured — a blossoming career as a photographer, numerous opportunities to have his work (which is brilliant) featured in national publications, stamps in his passport from far flung and exotic places and adventure. He's sacrificed so much adventure.

WELD's founder, Austin Mann // a birds eye view of the WELD Dallas patio

WELD's founder, Austin Mann // a birds eye view of the WELD Dallas patio

But, as he heads off today to start WELD Nashville, I see that, maybe just maybe, his sacrifice of the very things I was unwilling to let go of is a statement of faith in what he deems to be treasure. And what he considers true adventure.

To enable, inspire and grow the creative communities of Dallas — and now Nashville — is a gift that multiplies Austin's heart for people a thousand fold. And amplifies the impact he alone can have in the world.

WELD-003

Five years ago, I said no to that quest. I didn't have the capital or the desire or the stomach to risk everything for others. That's hard to admit, but it's honest.

So, when Austin came to me and asked if I'd be willing to move into the roll of "Chief WELDER" in Dallas, I was faced with a similar dilemma. And there were a hundred reasons to once again say no. I mean, $50 bills are rolling off the machine, y'all. But, as I thought about my friends in Dallas who come to WELD every day, and this city my family calls home, and the deep seated beliefs I have about who we creatives are supposed to be in society, I realized those $50 bills are a sorry substitute for the quest that I was being invited into, which is the real treasure afterall.

I'm incredibly thankful to Austin for cultivating this community and revealing the deep truths of life to me in all he does. And, I'm incredibly honored that he'd hand me the opportunity to care for the fruit of his sacrifice.

I don't know what will happen next. Starting today, I'm in the tunnel, juggling my workload as a storyteller and the needs of the WELD community, and I'm sure that both the reminders of other's failures and a few boobie traps lay in front of me (that's what I said, 'boobie traps!!'"). But I also know that there is a treasure out there & I have a group of people (and, I genuinely love those people) who have climbed into the tunnel with me. And all any of us want to find is something better than the comfort of the counterfeit.

So, WELDERs, here we go.

On Courage & Tiananmen

Today, June 5th, is the anniversary of the Tank Man photo on Tiananmen Square. That got me thinking about life since that fateful day in 1989, the places I've visited and, ultimately, the miracles I take for granted.

Four years ago, I wrote about that image (PS, that link points to some really cool stories behind the Tank Man photo) and two summers ago, at about this time (how could I not have put two and two together?), I had the opportunity to stand just yards from the spot that drew the gaze of the planet back in 1989. As I reflected on the 24 years between Tank Man and today, I'm struck by a single thought: miraculous.

This image has stood as a reminder of the harsh reality that the world we live in is a lonely place for the courageous. Courage is a miracle. But miracles are transformative — just look where the courage of 1 in 1,000,000,000,000 has taken the people of China. In just 24 years this scene has rippled through the collective conscious of the globe, and today Tiananmen Square looks more like this:

A girl and her mother fly a kite in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. July, 2011.

A girl and her mother fly a kite in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. July, 2011.

Ponder that and be amazed. Then, go, and be courageous, too.

Where Goes Light

Last fall, en route to Ethiopia, I stopped and spent 48 hours in Oman with my closest friends in the world. In life, there is the family you are born into and the family you choose — Amber & Brady, for my wife and me, are the latter. In our hour of deepest need, they were there. In our moments of greatest joy, they were there.

Amber and Brady are "there" kind of people — and not just for my wife & me. Which is what makes them living in the effing desert of Oman* so tough to deal with. As much as I've travelled the last few years, you'd think I would have had a layover or two in their vicinity. Nope. Not one. Until Ethiopia.

I think it's safe to say that my visit was as glad a day for them as it was for me. I know this because we packed an epic discovery of their adopted home** into a matter of hours; they didn't want me to miss a thing.

Along the way we came across Seb, an abandoned village above the Ben Habib Wadi, and Harith, a man who was raised there. He made sure we had the chance to see his former home from it's most stunning angle.

Seb Ruins, Ben Habib Wadi, Oman. Oct. 2012.

Seb Ruins, Ben Habib Wadi, Oman. Oct. 2012.

To be honest, I was blown away imagining anyone ever living there. Humans have an amazing ability to dwell in such inhospitable environments. Nothing about life on that hillside, at any point in history, would have been easy. I asked Harith why his family abandoned the village a couple of decades earlier; what pushed them away? He told us the story of a government's unwillingness to run electricity to their homes, making modern life nearly impossible. After decades, possibly centuries, of living on the side of a cliff, the lack of light was what ultimately drove his family away.

Several months after returning from Oman, I came across this image on The Atlantic:

Palangan Village, Iraq. Photo by Amos Chapple.

Palangan Village, Iraq. Photo by Amos Chapple.

Palangan's resemblance to Seb, Oman is remarkable. Both share an architectural style, seem to have a similar number of dwellings, and their proximity to the wadi — a valley that fills with water in the rainy season — appears comparable. And, from my perspective, both seem equally inhospitable to human life. How exactly does one live on the side of a rocky cliff?

There is one striking difference, however: light. Palangan does not appear to have suffered Seb's fate. Where Seb is now a pile of crumbling buildings, the mere shadow of a fading story, Palangan is vibrant and alive. It may seem a simple thought, but I can't help but be reminded: where goes light, goes life.

Which brings me back to my tour guides in Oman. The landscape isn't the only inhospitable aspect of life in the Middle East. Culturally, life there is difficult for a Westerner. There are political, cultural and religious issues that make daily living as inhospitable as a rocky hillside. Maybe even more so. And yet, in today's world, with the global strains we see between Christians & Muslims, never has it been more important to get light onto those hillsides, both at home and abroad.

In the darkest hour of my marriage, Amber & Brady were life giving light to my wife and me, simply by being there and loving well. Today, I think our family life more closely resembles Palangan though it could have easily become Seb. That's the difference "there" people make in the world.

*Amber's pet name for Oman // **What Brady wishes Amber would call Oman

Against The Grain

Effective storytelling in the world of photography - or image making in general - requires one very well honed aspect of the craft: a unique perspective.

A victorious Adam Scott poses for photographers in his Green Jacket at the 2013 Masters (photo by Scott K. Brown/Augusta National)

A victorious Adam Scott poses for photographers in his Green Jacket at the 2013 Masters (photo by Scott K. Brown/Augusta National)

Kudos to Scott Brown understanding how powerful pointing your camera against the grain of all the other cameras can be. This image should remind us all to not get swept up in the tidal pool of trend or common wisdom. For your work to stand apart from the crowd, you must literally stand apart from the crowd.

Tap into and seek out your unique perspective. It's the only thing in the world you have that no one else can claim.

I must tip my hat to my friend Allan Thompson for sharing this image. His passion for story & golf are second to none.

The Art of Seeing

He saw something in my son nobody else saw. And he made a film about it.
— George Monroy, Caine's father

Do you remember that video about the young boy from LA who built a cardboard arcade and stole the internet's heart? If you're not familiar with Caine's story, you need to be. Don't worry, there's no expiration date on awesome story. This is the best 10 minutes you'll invest today:

[vimeo 40000072 580 326]

Well, my friend Heather at Shutterfly (she's the Chief Storytelling Officer, how cool is that?) sent it to me this week & I watched it a few times, including yesterday over a Valentine picnic with my wife & daughter. The story is one of those that's too incredibly heartwarming not to share. And it started me thinking about a few things.

Something Nobody Else Saw. It takes a storyteller to see the world as it's supposed to be (thanks for the phrase Cornelius Plantinga). Most people walk through life and see a hardware store full of boxes. It takes a storyteller to see, to really truly see, past the factual truth of life and redemptively view the details. This wonderful little kid gave the world a gift, but it took a storyteller's perspective to translate what he created into a language the rest of the world could understand. It took a storyteller to show the world an arcade.

Storytellers are First Customers. The Art of Seeing comes with great responsibility. It's a form of leadership. The way Nirvan Mullick (the storyteller behind Caine's Arcade) saw his neighborhood sparked a worldwide movement & literally changed Caine's life forever. Not to mention the change in perspective that occurs in anyone who's ever seen the film. They'll never see a cardboard box the same way again. The world is better because Nirvan needed a door handle and found an arcade.

A Small Gesture. Seeing Truth in the overwhelming presence of contrary facts, takes practice - but it's something you can do anywhere. And it starts with being curious and kind. Nirvan may have truly seen the arcade before anyone else, but it took kindness shown to a 9 year old boy and a willingness to ask, "how much for a fun pass?" to give birth to a story.

This weekend, as you do the things you do, practice the Art of Seeing. Engage someone you wouldn't normally notice, show them the kindness of being genuinely interested in the details of their life. You just might find a story that we all desperately need to hear.

You can learn more about Caine & his arcade here: http://cainesarcade.com/

the original social media

 
The primary question has to be what stories can you tell with what tools... Let’s move the conversation forward to that point, and dispense with the angst and anxiety.
— photo critic David Campbell on the "legitimate vs illegitimate" photography debate
 

I first laid my hands on an iPhone in August of 2007; it was a graduation gift from my mom. When I started college 11 years earlier (that's a whole other story), cell phones weren't ubiquitous, email was a novelty, Google was still two years from making it's debut and I carried a Pentax K1000 everywhere I went. A lot about the world has changed in the last 17 years, but nothing has been more seismic for me personally than that day in 2007 when I first held the iPhone.

early iPhone photos from Sudan, 2009, processed w/ Best Camera

early iPhone photos from Sudan, 2009, processed w/ Best Camera

Photography grabbed me at a very early age and the fascination was never about the technical, but the social aspects of the art. Photography, in my opinion, is the first social media. It was born from our desire as humans to contextualize and record the world around us and to share our perspective. The share has evolved over the years - from those first images etched onto glass plates, to slideshows on living room walls to Instagram - but the point has always been to share.

So, in that spirit, I want to share thoughts, ideas and some of what I'm trying in mobile photography. I want to share because I love sharing things I am passionate about and, if mobile photography has done nothing else in the last five and half years, it's elevated my passion for imaging making.

palm trees outside a taxi window, Havana, Cuba, 2013

palm trees outside a taxi window, Havana, Cuba, 2013

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to share the apps I use most & why I love them, share how you can make your own #panogramtastic images in Instagram & let some of my favorite mobile photographers share their thoughts on mobile photography. In the meantime, feel free to follow me on Instagram and Flickr, which is where I share the majority of my mobile photography.

Part II is coming on Thursday, so stay tuned.

Soho, NYC // Chicago on Lake Michigan (my 2 most 'liked' Instagrams of 2012)

Soho, NYC // Chicago on Lake Michigan (my 2 most 'liked' Instagrams of 2012)